The North Water (4 page)

Sumner thinks about this for a moment, then shakes his head.

“Brownlee will do,” he says.

“He will do if you want things fucked up,” the beggar answers. “He will do if you want to come home fucking penniless or not come home at all. He'll do for all that, I agree with you there. You heard about the
Percival
? You must have heard about the fucking
Percival
?”

The beggar is wearing a grimy and shapeless tam-o'-shanter patchworked from the broken remnants of numerous pieces of older and finer headgear.

“I was in India,” Sumner says.

“Ask anyone around here about the
Percival
,” the beggar says. “Just say the word
Percival
and see what comes back.”

“So tell me then,” Sumner says.

The beggar pauses a moment before beginning, as if to better measure the hilarious breadth of Sumner's naivety.

“Crushed to matchwood by a berg,” he says. “Three years ago now. Its holds were filled up with blubber at the time and they didn't rescue even one single barrel of it. Not a scrap. Eight men drownded and ten more perished of the cold, and none of those that lived made even sixpunce.”

“Sounds like a misfortune. It could happen to anyone.”

“It happened to Brownlee though, no one else. And a captain that fucking unfortunate doesn't often get another ship.”

“Baxter must trust him.”

“Baxter's fucking deep. That's all I'll say about fucking Baxter. Deep is what Baxter is.”

Sumner shrugs and looks up at the moon.

“What happened to your legs?” he asks.

The beggar looks down and frowns as though surprised to find them gone.

“You ask Captain Brownlee about that one,” he says. “You tell him Ort Caper sent you. You tell him we was counting up my legs together one fine evening and there seemed to be a couple of 'em missing. See what he says about that one.”

“Why would I ask him that?”

“Because you wouldn't hardly believe the truth of it coming from a man like me, you'd likely write it off as the ravings of a loon, but Brownlee knows the bloody truth of it as well as me. You ask him what happened on the
Percival
. Tell him Ort Caper sends his best regards. See what that does to his digestion.”

Sumner takes a coin from his pocket and drops it into the beggar's outstretched hand.

“Ort Caper's the name,” the beggar shouts after him. “Ask Brownlee what happened to my fucking legs.”

*   *   *

Farther on, he begins to smell the Queen's Dock—its sour, bathetic pong, like meat about to turn. In the gaps between warehouses, between the piled-up planking of timber yards, he can see the tin-cut silhouetted line of whaling ships and sloops. It is past midnight now and the streets are quieter—some muted sounds of drinking from the dockside taverns, the Penny Bank, the Seaman's Molly, now and then the noise of an empty hackney carriage or the grumble of a dustcart. The stars have swiveled, the swollen moon is half-hidden behind a bank of nickel-plated cloud; Sumner can see the
Volunteer
, broad-waisted, dark and thick with rigging, a little farther down the dock. There is no one walking about the deck, at least no one he can see, so the loading must be complete. They are only waiting for the tide now, and for the steam tug to pull them out into the Humber.

His mind moves to the northern ice fields, and the great wonders he will no doubt see there—the unicorn and sea leopard, the walrus and the albatross, the Arctic petrel and the polar bear. He thinks about the great right whales lying bunched in pods like leaden storm clouds beneath the silent sheets of ice. He will make charcoal sketches of them all, he decides, paint watercolor landscapes, keep a journal possibly. And why not? He will have plenty of time on his hands, Brownlee made that plain enough. He will read widely (he has brought his dog-eared Homer); he will practice his disused Greek. Why the fuck not? He will have precious little else to do—doling out purgatives now and then, occasionally certifying the dead, but apart from that it will be a kind of holiday. Baxter implied as much anyway. Implied that the surgeon's job on a whaler was a legal nicety, a requirement to be met, but in practice there was bugger all to do—hence the risible wages, of course. So, yes, he thinks, he will read and write, he will sleep, he will make conversation with the captain when called upon. By and large it will be an easeful, perhaps a mildly tedious, sort of time, but God knows that is what he needs after the madness of India: the filthy heat, the barbarity, the stench. Whatever the Greenland whaling is like, he thinks, it will surely not be anything like that.

 

CHAPTER THREE

“The wind's picking up now,” Baxter says. “I wager you'll make good time to Lerwick.”

Brownlee leans against the wheelhouse and launches a gob of green phlegm over the taffrail and into the broad brown murk of the Humber. To north and south a scanty shoreline welds the rusted steel of estuary and sky. Ahead, the steam tug chunters flatly onwards, gulls bouncing and water broiling in its wake.

“I truly cannot wait to see what gaggle of shitheads you've got waiting for me in Lerwick,” Brownlee says.

Baxter smiles.

“All good men,” he says. “All true Shetlanders: hard workers, eager, biddable.”

“You know I aim to fill the main hold when we reach the North Water,” Brownlee says.

“Fill it with what exactly?”

“With blubber.”

Baxter shakes his head.

“You don't need to prove yourself to me, Arthur,” he says. “I know what you are.”

“I'm a whaling man.”

“You are, indeed, and a damned fine one. The problem we have is not you, Arthur, and it's not me either: the problem we have is history. Thirty years ago any half-wit with a boat and a harpoon could get rich. You remember that. You remember the
Aurora
in 'twenty- eight? It was back by June—fucking
June
—and with stacks of whalebone as high as my head lashed onto the gunwales. I'm not saying it was easy then, it was never easy, as you know. But it could be done. Now you need—what?—a two-hundred-horsepower steam engine, harpoon guns, and a lot of luck. And even then, odds are you'll come back clean as a whistle.”

“I'll fill the hold,” Brownlee insists calmly. “I'll kick these bastards up the arse and fill the hold, you'll see.”

Baxter steps towards him. He is dressed like a lawyer, not a mariner: black calfskin boots, nankeen waistcoat, purple neckerchief, a cutaway coat of navy worsted. His hair is gray and sparse, his cheeks are red and venous, his eyes are rheumy. He has looked mortally sick for years, but he never misses a day at the office. The man is a whited sepulchre, Brownlee thinks, but by Christ will he talk. Words, words, words—un-fucking-ending, an unstoppable stream of verbiage. He will still be talking his arse off when they put him in the fucking ground.

“We
killed
them all, Arthur,” Baxter goes on. “It was tremendous while it lasted, and magnificently profitable too. We had twenty-five fucking good years. But the world turns, and this is a new chapter. Think of it like that. Not the end of one thing, but the beginning of something better. Besides, no one even wants the whale oil anymore—it's all petroleum now, all coal gas, you know that.”

“The petroleum won't last,” Brownlee says. “That's just a fad. And the whales are still out there—you just need a captain with a nose for it, and a crew who can do what's asked.”

Baxter shakes his head and leans in conspiratorially. Brownlee smells pomade, mustard, sealing wax, and cloves.

“Don't fuck this up, Arthur,” he says. “Don't misremember what we're up to here. This is not a question of pride—not your pride, and not mine. And this is definitely not about the fucking fish.”

Brownlee turns away without answering. He stares across at the dreary flatness of the Lincolnshire shore. He has never liked the land, he thinks. It is too certain, too solid, too sure of itself.

“Did you get anyone to check the pumps?” Baxter asks him.

“Drax,” he answers.

“Drax is a good fellow. I didn't cut any corners with the harpooners, did I? I trust you noticed that. I got you three of the best. Drax, Jones-the-whale, and, whatshisname, Otto. Any captain would be happy with those three.”

“They'll do,” he admits, “they'll all three do, but it don't make up for Cavendish.”

“Cavendish is necessary, Arthur. Cavendish makes sense. We've talked about Cavendish many times already.”

“I heard muttering from the crew.”

“About Cavendish?”

Brownlee nods.

“It's a poor move to make him first mate. They all know him as a worthless cunt.”

“Cavendish is a great turd and a whoremonger, it's true, but he will do whatever he's told to. And when you get to the North Water the very last thing you want is some bastard showing initiative. Anyway, you have your second mate, young Master Black, to help if you get into any difficulties on the way. He has a decent head on him.”

“What do you make of our Paddy surgeon?”

“Sumner?” Baxter shrugs, then chuckles. “Did you see what I got him for? Two pounds a month, and a shilling a ton. That's a record, near enough. There's something fishy there, of course there is, but I don't believe we need concern ourselves about it. He doesn't want any trouble from us, I'm sure of that.”

“Do you believe the dead uncle?”

“Christ, no. Do you?”

“You think he's been cashiered then?”

“Most probably, but even if he has been, so what? What do they cashier you for over there now? Cheating at bridge? Buggering the bugle boy? I'd say he'll do for us.”

“You know he was at Delhi on the ridge. He saw Nicholson afore he died.”

Baxter raises his eyebrows, nods, and looks impressed.

“That Nicholson was a bloody hero,” he says. “If we had a few more like Nicholson hanging the bastards, and less like that pusillanimous shit Canning giving out pardons left and right, the empire would be in safer hands.”

Brownlee nods in agreement.

“I heard he could slice a Pandy clean in two with one blow of his saber,” he says. “Nicholson, I mean. Like a cucumber.”

“Like a cucumber,” Baxter laughs. “That would be a sight to see, would it not?”

They are passing Grimsby to starboard and in front of them the fine yellow line of Spurn Point is hoving into view. Baxter checks his pocket watch.

“We've made quick time,” he says. “All the omens are good.”

Brownlee calls to Cavendish to signal to the steam tug. After a minute or so the tug slows and the line between the vessels slackens. They cast off the line, and Brownlee calls for the mainsails to be unfurled. The wind is fresh from the southwest and the glass is steady. Gray clouds clog the eastern horizon. Brownlee glances at Baxter, who is smiling at him.

“A final word before I leave you, Arthur,” he says, nodding downwards.

“Get that fucking rope coiled,” Brownlee calls out to Cavendish, “and hold her steady, no more sail.”

The two men go down the companionway together and enter the captain's cabin.

“Brandy?” Brownlee asks.

“Since I paid for it,” Baxter says, “why not?”

They sit down at opposite sides of the table and drink.

“I brought the papers,” Baxter says. “I thought you might like to see them for yourself.” He pulls two sheets of parchment from his pocket, unfolds them, and pushes them across the table. Brownlee looks down for a moment. “Twelve thousand pounds divided three ways is a considerable heap of money, Arthur,” Baxter goes on. “You should keep that upmost in your mind. It's a good deal more than you could ever hope to make from killing whales.”

Brownlee nods.

“Campbell better be there,” he says. “That's all I'm saying. If Campbell isn't there the moment I need him, I'll turn this cunt around and sail her home.”

“He'll be there,” Baxter says. “Campbell's not as idiotic as he looks. He knows if this one goes well, he's next in line.”

Brownlee shakes his head.

“This is what it comes to,” he says.

“It's the money, Arthur, that's all it is. The money does what it wants to. It doesn't care what we prefer. Block off one passageway and it carves out a new one. I can't control the money, I can't tell it what to do or where to go next—I wish I fucking could but I can't.”

“You better pray there's enough ice up there.”

Baxter finishes off his drink and stands up to leave.

“Oh, there's always ice,” he says, smiling lightly. “We both know that. And if there's one man alive who has the true knack for finding it, I believe it's you.”

 

CHAPTER FOUR

They enter Lerwick harbor on the first day of April 1859. The ashen sky is threatening rain, and the low, treeless hills that surround the town are the color of damp sawdust. Two Peterhead ships, the
Zembla
and the
Mary-Anne
, are already lying safely at anchor, and the
Truelove
from Dundee is expected in the next day. As soon as he has breakfasted, Captain Brownlee goes into the town to visit Samuel Tait, his local shipping agent, and pick out the Shetland portion of the crew. Sumner spends the morning doling out tobacco rations and tending to Thomas Anderson, a deckhand with a painful stricture. In the afternoon he lies on his bunk and falls into a drowse while reading Homer. He is woken by a knock from Cavendish, who explains that he is gathering a small party of dedicated seamen for the purposes of testing the achievements of the local distillery.

“Currently the expeditionary party consists of me,” Cavendish says, “Drax, who I confess is a fucking heathen with a drink inside him, Black, who is a cool customer and claims only to drink ginger beer or milk, but we shall see about that, and also Jones-the-whale, who is a raging Taff, of course, and therefore a grave fucking mystery to all of us. All in all, it promises to be a most satisfactory evening, I would say.”

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